Winter's Tales

Christmas ghost stories. Books to drive away the doldrums of long, dark nights. Is there a better time for cozy and spooky reading than right now? As Sir Philip Sidney noted centuries ago, this is the season of the year for "a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner."

For a long time now, A Christmas Carol has been, deservedly, our favorite cozy classic of the holiday season. But there are many other wonderful books perfect for reading in an armchair by the fire or under goose-down covers in bed, while the snow falls outside. A mug of hot chocolate or a warming toddy should be close at hand.

 

E.T.A. Hoffmann: Tales of Hoffmann. One of Hoffmann's tales, "Nutcracker and Mouse King," provided the basis for Tchaikovsky's ever popular, and seasonal, Nutcracker ballet; but another, "The Sandman," inspired Freud to write his celebrated essay on "The Uncanny." Alchemists, clockwork automata, haunting music, strange lenses, mesmerism, other worlds -- all these are repeated themes in these marvel-filled stories, often told in a surprisingly jaunty voice. In "The Golden Pot" -- one of the great fantasies of the 19th century -- a young man finds himself torn between the prosaic life of everyday Dresden and a bizarre faery realm of salamanders and seductive serpent-maidens. Full of wonders, the story includes a terrifying witch, a midnight invocation of satanic powers, a magic mirror, good and evil shape-shifters and an angst-ridden moment when its enchanted hero finds himself trapped inside a glass bottle.

 

John Meade Falkner: The Nebuly Coat. In this brooding Victorian novel -- half mystery, half gothic thriller -- a young architect-engineer named Westray travels to a small English town to restore its medieval church. From the first, Falkner builds up a sense of wrongness, hinting at ghostly revenants, unsolved crimes, the return of the long repressed. Why is the local inn called, ominously, The Hand of God? On windy nights the church's stone arches even seem to moan, and Westray grows convinced that its tower may be shifting. There are mysterious circumstances surrounding an inheritance -- and in the shadows, one can almost glimpse something moving, something grasping a hammer. Gradually, it would seem that the past is increasing its pressure upon the present, that people and buildings can no longer prop up their unstable outward appearances, and that all that looks sound and reliable may be mere illusion. But are we dealing with illusions only? Or something all too real?



Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island. There's not a word wasted in this novel, arguably the greatest "boys' adventure" of the 19th century. Every pirate, each with just the right name, is indelibly there before our eyes. Just think of them. Captain Flint, who hid the treasure and -- to make sure none knew its whereabouts -- coldly murdered the six men who helped him bury it. Billy Bones, slowly drinking himself to death on rum at the Admiral Benbow Inn. Black Dog, with his chilling, unctuous talk of "my mate Bill." Blind Pew -- a vision of nightmare -- slowly tapping his way down the twilit road to deliver the Black Spot. The half-mad Ben Gunn dreaming of cheese, "toasted, mostly." The coxswain Israel Hands climbing the mast toward young Jim Hawkins, waiting for the moment to throw the knife hidden behind his back. And, above all "to be sure," that immortal and greatly dreaded "sea-faring man with one leg," Long John Silver. Try reading this great classic aloud:

 

The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears: "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"


M. R. James: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories. For many aficionados of the genre, these are the finest spooky tales in the English language. Written by a donnish antiquarian, who would read them aloud as Christmas treats to his friends at Cambridge or to the boys at Eton, they tell of middle-aged scholars who stumble across something from the past -- an old diary, an enigmatic inscription on a tomb, puzzling symbols in stained glass, or even an 18th-century maze in which one never feels quite alone. Just the titles evoke the sense of ancient menace: "Casting the Runes," "Count Magnus," "A Warning to the Curious," "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," "The Mezzotint." Nothing gross or gruesome is described; it is only hinted at. Instead, James will deliver a quiet phrase that sets the reader on edge: "The boots was just collecting shoes in the passage, or so we thought: afterwards we were not so sure." "What he had been touching rose to meet him."

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Complete Sherlock Holmes. The stories of the great detective and Dr. Watson are wonderful mysteries, as any 12-year-old can tell you. But to grown-ups they are also quiet refuges from our crowded lives, places of cozy comfort where the fog rolls in, a hansom cab awaits at the door of 221b Baker Street, and it is always 1895. Not only are Holmes and Watson immortal, but so are their friends and enemies: Irene Adler ("of dubious and questionable memory"); Colonel Sebastian Moran ("the second-most dangerous man in London"); that human computer, the sedentary Mycroft Holmes; and, of course, the mathematician turned fiendish criminal mastermind, Professor Moriarty. And think of the evocative phrases scattered through what Sherlockians call the Sacred Writings: "They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" "The curious incident of the dog in the night-time." The tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, one of those cases "for which the world is not yet prepared." Here, then, is reading bliss -- and "The Blue Carbuncle" is even a holiday story set just after Christmas.

Lord Dunsany: The Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens.

The talk had veered round to runes and curses and witches, one bleak December evening, where a few of us sat warm in easy chairs round the cheery fire of the Billiards Club.

"Do you believe in witches?" one of us said to Jorkens.

"It isn't what I believe in that matters so much," said Jorkens; "only what I have seen."


And off we go. Lord Dunsany published five compilations of these addictive tall tales, and any anthology of his elegant and witty short fantasies will contain at least a handful. (Night Shade Books reprints them all in three volumes.) Not so long ago, very queer things might happen in the world's quiet corners and backwaters. Once, for instance, Jorkens found himself surrounded by fierce African warriors who were dressed .... Well, let him tell it:

"Eighty-five men with spears, of a tribe that I did not know, and every one of them in evening dress.... White ties, white waistcoats," said Jorkens quietly. "In fact just what you are wearing now, except that they had rather heavier watch-chains, and they all wore diamond solitaires."

After allowing this image to take hold for a moment, the storyteller quickly adds:

"And the first thing I thought was that I need hardly expect the worst, because however nasty the spears looked, anything like cannibalism was impossible in decent evening dress, such as they were all wearing. I was wrong there."

That last sentence shows the typical Dunsany touch. If you've never listened to Mr. Joseph Jorkens relate one of his youthful adventures -- about ancient curses, mermaids, or travel to Mars -- you're in for a treat.

Isak Dinesen: Seven Gothic Tales; Winter's Tales; Last Tales. This Danish noblewoman, the Baroness Blixen, wrote a stately, formal English, altogether appropriate to her stories of dissolute cardinals and demon-haunted prioresses, foppish counts, impotent princes, and diabolical actors. No matter how dark their deeds, all of Dinesen's characters display complete self-possession and suavity, an almost glacial correctness even in the face of death. Cross-dressing, incest, rape, and murder are just some of the elements in her Gothic Tales, most of them set in the 18th or early 19th century. It's not surprising that Dinesen once said that she had sold her soul to the Devil in return for the power to tell stories.

John Dickson Carr: The Three Coffins. This is the greatest of all locked-room mysteries, that genre in which a murder is committed under seemingly supernatural circumstances. In The Three Coffins, there are actually two impossible crimes: in the second, an apparently invisible killer shoots a man at point-blank range, "in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprint appeared in the snow." That's freshly fallen snow, by the way. This thrilling and playful mystery features a professor who dabbles in the supernatural, a strange magician, an empty grave, a hollow man, and one unexpected development after another. The detective is the corpulent Dr. Gideon Fell, who actually delivers a chapter-long lecture on the "general mechanics and development of that situation which is known in detective fiction as the 'hemertically sealed chamber.' " This, in itself, is a tour de force, but then so is the entire novel. If you've read this Golden Age mystery classic, go on to Carr's equally imaginative The Crooked Hinge -- or, if you dare, to his controversial account of modern witchcraft, The Burning Court.

About the Columnist
Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and several collections of essays. His most recent book is Classics for Pleasure.

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